Graves: Race and Evolution is Always Complex

@TedDavis, @Art, @Jordan, and @NLENTS, you might want to see this. This exchange, and the misses here, exemplifies how and why we need to do better for african american students on evolution education.

One of the most common rebuttals to someone who rejects evolution is that most scientists — 98 percent is a common number on polls — accept evolution. But considering only 28 percent of Black Americans have a “great deal” of confidence in scientific leaders, according to a 2018 study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, it may be that scientific consensus doesn’t matter.

“That’s the same thing as asking them, ‘Do you trust white people?’” Graves said. “… If I show up as a scientist, I guarantee the trust factor would change. For the vast majority of these communities, they’ve never seen a person of African descent in a leading role in science.”

First, the way the headline is written, it overplays the role of socially-defined race (African-Americans) and downplays the role of Biblical literalist/fundamentalist interpretation of scripture. What needed to be clear is that the rejection of the evidence supporting evolutionary science is driven by religious fundamentalism, not being an African-American. From 1993-2004, the National Opinion Research Center data recorded responses concerning the question: “Human beings developed from earlier species of animals.” Responses differed with Doctrinally Conservative Protestants, 76 percent, Black Protestants, 66 percent, and Mainline Protestants, 45 percent, answering “definitely or probably false” to this item respectively. This of course means that 24 percent, 34 percent, and 55 percent of these groups answered “definitely and probably true” to this question1.

Therefore, a proper title to the Feb. 14 piece would have recognized the diversity within the African-American community as opposed to stereotyping it as having a uniform “strained” relationship with evolutionary science. I would have entitled the piece: “Religion plays a prominent role in the differential acceptance of evolution by African Americans.”

Yeah, so I am definitely surprised that only 28% of Black American are confident in scientific leaders. I looked up the main article on that and in fact when they compared by race, gender, age, highest degree, and political party, that 28% was the lowest of any group! This is a real problem, and probably feeds a lot into recruiting young African Americans into STEM fields.

From the main article:

“I’m inclined to think that it’s not really a factor,” said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education. “When you look at the really glaring cases in which African-Americans have suffered at the hands of science, evolution and biology aren’t really front and center there.”

Instead, Branch said the more relevant perpetrator is medical racism, which includes a history of doctors and scientists using African-Americans for experiments, often without their knowledge or permission.

OK, what?! I’ve heard of Henrietta Lacks and the Tuskegee Study, though I don’t know much about them. Are there others?

I’ve wondered about a lack of inclusion of minority populations in medical research, the ethical kind. I’ve heard that college-age white men are the most common test subjects for medical studies, is that true?

I highly recommend Harriet Washington’s book on this, Medical Apartheid. Example after stunning example. And this reality is still ongoing. When they wanted to field test artificial blood transfusions in ambulances, where do you think they did trials? Black neighborhoods of course. And it went very badly.

And her new book coming out proves to be just as horrifying. I’m moderating an event at the NYPL featuring this book next month.


@NLENTS thanks for the book suggestions. I’m not sure if my campus is ready for something like this yet but it would be very interesting to have a discussion around the Medical Apartheid book. Difficult discussions, but I think they could bring people together by helping people understand the, sometimes radically different, experiences of others through a common sense of a shared humanity.


I think the second one, on environmental racism, might be more something you’d have to build towards, because it could definitely bring out polemics who will insist “it’s not about race!” etc. However, medical apartheid is much more straightforward historical research. There really isn’t any other way to see these examples as intentional oppression and victimization and it’s all very well documented.